We are sly about our age,
that thing you never ask a woman.
Maybe it’s ancient instinct to not draw the attention of jealous gods
to not push our luck.
But maybe it’s more complicated.
Today I am 41 and a little proud to have made it that many rotations around the sun.
But mostly I know that I am lucky because I was born 41 years ago in a white middle class household.
In a time when health insurance was the norm for middle class work
so my mother had prenatal care, and I was delivered by cesarean
and we did not go bankrupt or lose our home.
I am 41 today largely because I have never been
a young black man in a hoodie, holding a candy bar;
gunned down by a cop and left lying in the street.
I have never been a young woman of color without health insurance
dead of a complicated pregnancy in a nation that could do better but doesn’t care.
I have never been from the Dominican Republic, fleeing violence
missing the weight of the child on my hip I will never see again
because I dared to cross a man made line
on a map we invented. On the occasion of my 41st birthday
I can only feel the injustice
that I have made it this far mostly by luck and birth
while so many others became stories below the fold
their short lives hardly worth a mention by the way we measure things
or a sad statistic to cement our momentum stuck on the hard sharp friction
of racism, and misogyny and history grinding out souls into numbers.
I am 41 and perhaps we have it right, the shame
of 41 years of mostly smooth sailing around this sun
that shines rather pleasantly on my housed blond head and full belly.
But we don’t have to be. No I’m not going to leave you there
lost in shame over something you after all didn’t choose.
Just because it has always been, doesn’t mean it must always be.
And you and I, we can make different choices
change the measure. Scrub away the shame and begin
to number our days as celebrations. A whole year we’ll say,
a year since a bullet fired, a year since a child died, a year since a mother
with empty arms and burning eyes. And ten, and twenty, scrubbing
until our children don’t understand why we were once ashamed
of our age.
On Privilege, Spirituality, and Maturity
I am clergy. Which means that at least once every few months someone looks at me with deep disappointment and says “I wish you wouldn’t get political in your sermons.”
As if our lives could be compartmentalized into neat little silos. Over here we have politics, and in this corner food, another for work, for religion, and for family. All neat and tidy and no overlap, which of course isn’t possible. That’s not to say we haven’t done it, a lot. I went to church as a child with a business owner who sat in the pew every Sunday, served on the vestry (church governing board) and then fleeced his workers and treated everyone he encountered six days a week (including family) like shit.
There’s a long tradition of that sort of thing. It is spiritually easy, comfortable. You show up on Sunday, I give you some spiritual experience, make you feel better about yourself for having done your duty, and then you get on with your life however you please.
I mean who wouldn’t want that?
But here’s the awkward thing about actually beginning to live into your religious tradition as if it matters, you can’t do that anymore.
And partly you can’t do that because you realize pretty quickly that spiritually mature people can no longer compartmentalize their lives.
Of Jesus, Buddha, and other meddlers
Choose any spiritual (or emotionally) mature person you choose and you’ll find someone whose life is entirely integrated. They wear their values on their sleeve and everything they do in their lives aligns with those values.
Jesus, a spiritual teacher who accidentally founded a religion, taught about paying workers a living wage (even those who had only worked an hour that day), and reforming religious practice. There was no difference for him between the Temple and the marketplace. All of it mattered. The Roman empire wasn’t in the practice of executing spiritual teachers, but they absolutely executed people who “got political.”
The Buddha began his journey because his eyes were opened to the real world (political) suffering outside the walls of his palace. For many his journey serves as an icon, a pointer, to the shape of a maturing spiritual life. In that moment that we stick our heads out of our comfortable safe spaces and are confronted with the truth of the world we have two choices: we can retreat back into our comfort (and stay stuck forever), or we can grow beyond ourselves. Growing beyond will inevitably seem to those left behind in the palace as “getting political.”
You can probably name spiritually mature leaders in your own tradition, people who grew beyond their own selfish inward focus, who came to see the connections between human beings, and who meddled and made people uncomfortable. (My favorites are the Hebrew prophets.)
Growing Up, Growing Out
Part of growing up is becoming more aware. We maybe should call growing up, waking up. Waking up isn’t required, you can get through the whole of your life without doing it. Most of us know someone who has spent their whole lives stubbornly asleep. The term we use today is “self awareness” but it falls short of real wakefulness.
Yes, it is important to become self aware, to be able to see our weaknesses and strengths realistically. But self awareness requires connection to others. It almost always begins in the places where friction happens between our unaware selves and the people we encounter.
To know the places where we are biased, where we have privileged, or advantage over others we must be aware that there are others in the world, and that they are different from us. I remember as a child, perhaps ten, riding in the car and watching all the other cars go past. Intellectually, I knew, that there were real people in those cars. I could see them. But I sat for the first time trying to imagine what their lives were like, trying to imagine that they continued to exist even after I could no longer see them.
It is easy to accept things that make us feel good. We will readily accept as fact those things that stroke our egos or affirm our current beliefs. What is much, much more difficult is being open to uncomfortable truths. These are the things that challenge us, that upset our assumptions, and that maybe even threaten the things we have known about ourselves.
When the Buddha first encountered poverty and suffering he had a choice to make. That suffering refuted the truth he had been raised in, it showed his life to be a lie, and the things he thought he knew about himself to be perhaps not true. He chose to be curious. To move into the discomfort instead of away from it. He changed.
In the course of my life I have been confronted over and over again with the ways in which my view of my self might not in fact be entirely accurate, and the ways in which my views of the world might not be entirely accurate. I cannot say that I have always reacted immediately as I might wish, none of us do, but eventually I get there (over and over again.)
A Roadmap To Discovering Yourself & Others
There is of course no single way to become self aware, nor to wake up to the reality around us. There are however signposts, consistent practices that can help us on our journey. The ones I have to share with you are fairly universal, though they are most specifically geared for people like me: with privilege we may not be aware of, and advantages that others lack.
Don’t be afraid
Doing your work, dealing with your shit, is uncomfortable. There is no way around that. And it can be scary. Realizing (at last) that you got where you are partly because of the color of your skin, your parent’s socio-economic position, and other factors external to your own hard work can be devastating. First recognizing the ways in which you perpetuate suffering on other people can be awful.
What is worse is to go through your whole life never knowing. In the end all the old beliefs that get smashed are replaced with far more robust places to stand. And the hard work of getting honest, and turning outward toward others will build relationships that are worth it all in the end. Be brave.
Learn about yourself. Read books, ask others for feedback (clearly you should be wise about who you ask for feedback). Go to therapy (yes, just to work on yourself, even if you think you don’t have anything to work on)! Practice mindfulness. That might sound strange but think about it for a moment. To be mindful is to be present and aware. If you really want to learn about yourself that is exactly what you need to do. Pay attention to what you say, and to whom. Pay attention to what you think but don’t say. Notice how you treat people when you are tired, stressed, or angry.
Be very aware of how you react when presented with stories, studies, or news items that directly conflict with what you have been taught or believe. Sit with your discomfort, interrogate it, chase it all the way back to it’s root and see what it is that really bothers you in those moments.
You could probably give a long list of things that other people could work on, get just as curious about the places you have to grow.
Listen to voices you wouldn’t otherwise hear. This year I made it a point to read books by women of color. As a theologian my book shelves are full of books like men (mostly white men). So I have spent the last year searching out books written by women, especially women of color. I have discovered voices, stories, and ideas that I would have otherwise never encountered.
Sometimes those voices have said things that challenged me, sometimes they have shared things that have healed hurts I didn’t know I had. This is the key to growth, we must search out new and different voices. Read, listen to podcasts, attend lectures and do it to push yourself, to find new and better ways of being human through a more diverse set of voices.
Who you listen to will vary, but I suggest getting real about your own levels of privilege within your society and then find people who are closer to the margins than you are. Then: really listen.
Be Gentle With Yourself
None of us are born awake. We wake up slowly, and we all start somewhere. Your journey is your own, what matters is not how far along you are but that you are doing it at all. We are, all of us, beloved. We are all precious, valuable, worthy. Never let go of that, it is this that calls us down the road, we are better than our sleeping selves. We are meant for greater things.